Environmentalism and White Privilege
This past weekend I was fortunate enough to attend an especially beautiful wedding. The experience was extraordinary for many reasons. But one of them was that during the ceremony, as well as in the toasts afterwards, no one only spoke about the couple and their future life together. Instead the two of them were always thought of as working together to preserve and enhance their environment. They were gardening, taking care of a stand of trees, raising chickens. Their future will be a future trying to protect and promote the well-being of their natural environment. The relationship we celebrated was not just the connection of two individuals but of two individuals whose future life together will be committed to enhancing the world in which they live.
These two young people did not think of themselves merely as two individuals striving for happiness together. They thought of themselves as responsible for their world and its protection and improvement. It made me think about patriotism – so much in the news lately. For many people patriotism consists of honoring our soldiers in many foreign wars – even in wars, like the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, which are generally considered terrible mistakes. Perhaps we should think of patriotism instead as actively caring for the part of the world in which we live rather than of honoring those who have destroyed large parts of the world belonging to total strangers – the people of Vietnam, Iraq and of Afghanistan.
Another thought that wedding brought up is the connection between this different kind of patriotism, of love of the land and of our obligation as its caretakers, and the racial differences that divide us. White people tend to assume that obligations to care for our natural environment are incumbent on all of us. All Americans who profess to love their country are to express that love in caring for our land. But white people rarely understand that for the last 150 years, ever since the end of Reconstruction in 1870 or so, we have used many different subterfuges to take land away from African-Americans, to make sure that they would be deprived of whatever land they were working hard to own, to prevent them from owning property and homes in most suburbs.
At the end of the Civil War, African Americans in the southern states flourished. They ran for elected office and won. They governed well. The South recovered from the ravages of the Civil War. Then, 10 years after the end of the war, federal troops were removed from the South and the whites instituted a regime of terror with beatings and lynchings. Black elected officials surrendered their offices. Black voters were intimidated and stayed away from the ballot box. Black farmers were deprived of their land. The local government would claim that they owed large amounts of taxes. The black farmers, often unable to read and write, without the assistance of an attorney were deprived of their land and turned into sharecroppers. When it came time to assess how much the sharecropper had produced, more chicanery kept the farmer in debt. They lost their land to unscrupulous whites. Stealing from blacks was an accepted practice.
When African Americans moved north, they encountered the same opposition to their acquiring a piece of land and a home of their own. As early as the period before World War I a silent campaigns of arson and vandalism kept African Americans out of "white" suburbs. Banks and real estate groups developed the practice of "redlining." Maps clearly indicated areas where black people could own homes and live. Realtors would not sell property to African-Americans outside those areas and banks refused mortgages.
Suburbs invented zoning ordinances which prevented black owners of building lots from building their houses. Needless to say, the ordinances applied scrupulously to African-Americans were not enforced against white homeowners. The federal government contributed to this concerted effort against blacks owning land and property. At the end of World War II Congress passed generous legislation that empowered the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) to give low cost mortgages to veterans for buying homes in the new suburbs springing up around the major cities. But these mortgages were for whites only. African Americans did not need to apply. If they did they were turned down. The fact that black Americans had fought as bravely as whites in World War II counted for nothing.
As a result black families today, even if they earn good wages, own a lot less property, have smaller savings and retirement funds than whites. The extended campaign to deprive African-Americans of the possibility of owning land and homes has been terribly successful. It has not only perpetuated a major injustice against black Americans. It has also contributed to the divisions among us. Even today few white Americans have black neighbors; few black Americans live next to whites.
One result of this geographic division of different parts of our nation is that whites know very little about the history of violence against Blacks, of the systematic theft of black property, and exploitation of black labor. When athletes protest this long and brutal history, whites do not understand because they have not seen it with their own eyes. Had they lived next door to each other, there would be fewer whites who are entirely clueless when it comes to the life of black Americans in our country.
When young white couples marry, they can promise each other not only to cherish the other person but also to be good stewards of their land and the animals that live on it. But all of us whites should promise each other and the black members of our nation to do whatever they can to repair the injuries done to them by previous and present generations of whites.